13 QUESTIONS WITH SANKET AVLANI OF TAXI FABRIC
WORDS BY JUHI PANDE
Sanket Avlani is the man behind Taxi Fabric, the start-up that turns cabs into canvas. Launched in April 2015, Taxi Fabric has upholstered over 100 cabs with as many different designs in Mumbai and is on to its third autorickshaw in Delhi. We caught up with Sanket to find out a little more about him and Taxi Fabric.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I was born in London, but soon after my birth my parents came back to Mumbai and that’s where I grew up and lived for the most part.
Q: What was school like? What did you study?
A: I was a very good student and I did really well in school. I studied science and then like a good science student, I took up engineering in college. But in the first year I realised that engineering was just not my cup of tea. So I started to teach myself graphic design software since graphic design was kind of a big deal around that time (still is).
I had to complete my engineering degree because I know that would have made my parents happy, but it was fairly clear that I wasn’t cut out for it. I wasn’t too happy and my grades weren’t that great. I made the move right after college.
I was always good at design from the get go.
Q: Tell us more about the switch.
A: Right after college I worked with a design firm and then a little while later I went to MICA and studied – right after that I worked in advertising as an art director/designer for close to five years and ended up working with Wieden+Kennedy London as a designer.
Q: Tell us about your favourite childhood memory.
A. There are so many (laughs). But the one that stands out the most is me building castles. My mother’s from Pune, and in Pune they have a tradition where you bring mud into the house, make a small mountain out of it (think about the height of a small child) and on top of that mountain you put a fort that’s made out of clay. And in that fort you have figures of Shivaji and his army. So, yeah, I used to be the commander for this mountain making process and everybody used to listen to my orders.
Q: If you could get one artist – living or dead – to design taxi fabric, who would you get?
A: Alive – Ai Wei Wei, dead – Alexander McQueen
Q: How does design in a taxi bring about change?
A: You know when we started Taxi Fabric, we deeply underestimated the reaction we would get from drivers and passengers. Taxi Fabric started out on a whim because I wanted to fuel my desire for design in a public space. Turns out, people of all strata really like or are enthused by design. Drivers told us about how people started conversations with them over the design. It led to more engagement between passenger and designer and more than being just a conversation starter, it delighted people. And that’s what design is all about, really. With Taxi Fabric we’ve brought design to people, instead of them having to go seek it out.
Q: Tell us a little more about the inception of Taxi Fabric. Was it a sudden idea or was there an evolution to a thought?
A: Oh it wasn’t a sudden idea at all. I’ve traveled by taxis all my life, and way back I decided to document taxi fabric for a blog I used to run. And really, it started with that. It took years to grow that idea into what it eventually morphed into. I changed jobs, countries and started Taxi Fabric from London.
Q: What’s your favourite taxi route in Bombay?
A: I really like the ride from Dadar to Nariman Point. There are so many flyovers, and you can really just glide past the city while seeing so much happen around you. I also quite like the whole VT – Churchgate section. At night, when it’s lit up, it’s really stunning.
Q: Are you a chatty passenger? Do you remember any conversation you may had had with a cab driver?
A: I have become now (laughs). Yeah, I remember this conversation I had with a driver once who ended up talking about couples kissing in the back seat. And he was quite upset about it. He said that people assumed that he/drivers had a problem with it because they were considered ‘backward’ or from smaller towns/villages. He said he was genuinely concerned for people’s safety. He said that it never stopped at kissing and it always went a step too far, and he was just not OK with that. And also, there’s a certain amount of disrespect towards him. He’s sitting in the same space that people are getting intimate in, and it wasn’t something he was OK with.
Q: Do you ask the driver to turn up or turn down the volume?
A: I like taxi music. I listen to whatever the driver’s listening to. Unless I’m on a phone call.
Q: How receptive are the cab drivers to Taxi Fabric?
A: They initially agree to it because they’re getting new fabric for free, but then most times, they end up really liking what we’ve done for them. We give all the designers the option to speak to the driver and design something that both agree on but it’s not something that every designer has to do.
Q: Have you had any complaints?
A: (laughs) Yeah this one time this cabbie didn’t like the purple in the fabric. He thought it was too much. And also, we’ve had a couple of instances where passengers got offended with our design though that was not our intent. Once was because the fabric had ‘chalega kya’ in Hindi with a hand gesture illustration next to it; a gentleman thought that it had a homosexual connotation and he got upset with the cab-driver. Another time we had something (completely non-offensive) written in the Urdu script, and a passenger told the driver that it was disrespectful to write that in Urdu. We don’t argue in these cases. We just alter the design. People can be really sensitive, but the last thing we want is the drivers getting into altercations. So, we tweak our design in such cases.
Q: Where is taxi fabric headed?
A: We started off TaxiFabric with a Kickstarter campaign to last us 30 fabrics. We’ve now crossed the 100 cab mark in Mumbai, and we've spent the last couple of months researching on a self-sustainable model. We want Taxi Fabric to be accessible to everyone, so we’re going to print these designs on various sorts of fabric for people to use as they want (home linen, clothing etc.). We’ve started doing shows/trade fairs and are exhibiting at the London Design Fair from September 22 to 25.
We’ve also kicked off our Delhi chapter, and Taxi Fabric Delhi is going to launch its third rickshaw in September. Soon, we’re also going to host the first Taxi Fabric Workshop where design students will come together to design taxis. Basically, we are opening our doors to a large community of creators, and I think we’re headed towards exciting things.
Taxi Fabric, Soulpatch 14, Cama Industrial Estate, Sun Mill Compound, Lower Parel (w), Mumbai 400 013.